The last time I saw Ritchie Blackmore play at this venue was in 1993, and things have changed a lot since then. He was with Deep Purple then, and in a now-infamous incident he refused to come on stage with the rest of the band, then when he did show up for his solo on opening number ‘Highway Star’, he broke off from playing in order to launch a plastic water bottle at a nearby cameraman. (The show was being filmed, which he had objected to).
Soon after that he quit Purple for the second and final time, had a brief revival of the Rainbow name with a new set of musicians, releasing one album (‘Stranger In Us All’, 1995) before forming Blackmore’s Night with his wife, American singer Candice Night. That project saw him turn away almost totally from the hard rock with which he made his name, preferring to play music inspired by the Renaissance era. He has stuck steadfastly to that path, releasing a string of albums and gaining a whole new following, but had consistently said he did not wish to return to playing rock music. Until now, that is.
Blackmore has been hinting for some time that he was ready to pick up the Strat again; more recent Blackmore’s Night albums have been featuring a little more electric guitar than before, he has included reworkings of several Rainbow songs in albums and – perhaps most telling – the passing of his old Purple colleague Jon Lord directly inspired Blackmore to feature a guitar-led instrumental (‘Carry On, Jon’) on the 2013 Blackmore’s Night album ‘Dancer And The Moon’. More recently than that, he even re-established contact with David Coverdale, with whom he had been estranged ever since his first departure from Deep Purple in 1975. Although informal discussions about working together amounted to nothing (but did inspire Coverdale to record ‘The Purple Album’ with Whitesnake, featuring reworkings of songs he first recorded 40 years ago) fans began to entertain the possibility that one of the truly inspirational guitarists of the classic rock era would do it again, maybe just one more time.
Finally in Autumn of 2015 Blackmore announced that he would play just three shows. billed as ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’ but featuring a new line-up of musicians, and the posters advertising the gigs declared that the set would feature songs from both Rainbow and Deep Purple. Two of those shows were to take place in Germany, while the only show in the UK would be at Birmingham’s NEC Arena (now known as Genting Arena). Needless to say interest in these shows was massive, and the British date sold out almost instantly. He has resisted the call to add further shows, declaring that the reason for only three was ‘to see if I can still do it’. He has not ruled out playing more dates in the future, but has made clear his first priority remains Blackmore’s Night. Remarkably, the date sold out even before he revealed who would be accompanying him in this new line-up, which should surely tell him how much his fans wanted this to happen again.
When the announcement came to reveal who was in this new line-up, some eyebrows were raised when Blackmore announced unknown singer Ronnie Romero would front the act. Described by Blackmore as (vocally) a cross between Ronnie James Dio and Freddie Mercury, he certainly had no pressure there (!). Also featured were Stratovarius keyboardist Jens Johansson (who having previously worked with both Ronnie James Dio and Yngwie Malmsteen, should be ideally suited to play with the man who pioneered what’s now called Power Metal); drummer David Keith (from Blackmore’s Night, aka ‘Troubadour of Aberdeen’), and bassist Bob Nouveau (also once of Blackmore’s Night).
The NEC floor was seated, and I found myself around 30 rows back in the left hand block. I’d have preferred standing personally, but many of these people at the show are the same ones who had followed the original incarnation of Rainbow, and to put it bluntly none of us are 20 any more! There were some younger fans present, some of whom were wearing T-shirts of Power Metal bands whose music was directly influenced by the Man in Black.
A cheer went up as the strains of ‘Land of Hope And Glory’ filled the arena, the traditional prelude to a Rainbow show, followed by the ‘Over The Rainbow’ excerpt from ‘The Wizard of Oz’. They chose to open with ‘Highway Star’ which brought back memories of 1993 for me (!), however this time Ritchie was on the stage from the start, and didn’t throw anything at anybody! The set then dovetailed fairly evenly between Rainbow and Deep Purple songs; that had been clearly stated on the posters advertising the gig but still raised a few complaints that it wasn’t slanted more towards Rainbow, especially as the show was billed as ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’, complete with artwork from the iconic ‘Rising’ album used in the poster adverts. Although all eyes were trained on Blackmore himself, he was content for the most part to just stand and play, letting Romero take the front of the stage and giving him plenty of space to express himself. Vocally, he was certainly up to the task. Possessing a powerful voice, he was able to handle Dio’s material with ease (he even borrowed a few hand gestures and stage moves from his more illustrious namesake) and dealt with Gillan-era Purple songs containing high notes with equal aplomb. Although he was compared to Mercury by his band leader, his stage appearance made me think more of Adam Lambert. His accent betrayed his roots in places (he is Chilean) but his strong delivery of some challenging material more than made up for the occasional South American inflection.
I did feel that this band hadn’t really had enough time to gel, with just three shows rather than a full tour behind them. Blackmore himself showed one or two signs of ring-rustiness; although his fingers were as fluid as ever on solos such as the one in ‘Spotlight Kid’ his playing was a little sloppy in places. Then again, the word ‘mercurial’ should be accompanied in a dictionary by a picture of Blackmore; it’s always been the case where you never quite know what you’ll get from him from night to night, or even from song to song! That unmistakable tone was present and correct, many have tried but nobody gets close to imitating Blackmore’s sound. He can really make that Strat sing like nobody else.
The songs, be they Purple or Rainbow numbers, were delivered in rather a straightforward fashion. The Blackmore of old would have taken a song into all kinds of places, stretching them out, adding bits, trading licks with the keyboard player and finally bringing it all back with a thundering riff. The player we saw tonight however, kept his arrangements fairly close to how the songs were recorded with just his solos wandering off the original path. The clearest example of this was with their rendition of ‘Catch The Rainbow’; it was nicely delivered but lacked the spine-tingling intensity that he used to bring to it live (have a listen to the same song from ‘On Stage’ or ‘Live in Germany 77’ to illustrate what I mean here). Indeed much of what was played was delivered in a more sedate manner, it was as though he’d arranged it not to stretch himself TOO much (he is now 71) whereas in the past, he’d choose players specifically to stretch himself, which added that crucial element of ‘danger’ live – you never knew where he was taking things in the old days. Consequently the set lacked a little excitement, I did initially put this down to the drummer but that may have been a touch unfair, his drumming certainly didn’t ‘drive the band’ the way Cozy or even Paice would have done, but I now believe he played to instruction.
Some Coverdale-era Purple was also performed, with ‘Burn’ being played relatively late in the set but also an acoustic rendition of ‘Soldier of Fortune’. Coverdale has made his own of this song in recent years when performing with Whitesnake, being one of the few Purple covers he retained in his set until last year’s ‘Purple Tour’ but Romero’s rendition impressed many at the NEC. ‘Mistreated’ came early in the set, Romero’s vocal was reminiscent of Dio’s from the version heard on ‘On Stage’ but yet again, the rendition lacked the intensity of old. Perhaps I have the California Jam version stuck in my mind as definitive, since this version just didn’t send the shivers down the spine in the same way.
Only when the band played ‘Child In Time’ did they recreate anything of the old intensity, with some sublime soloing from Blackmore waking this audience up, who had until then responded with applause that was polite at best. This was followed by ‘Stargazer’, a song Blackmore had often shied away from performing live in the old days (to the best of my knowledge, the last time he played it was at the 1980 Donington headline appearance, certainly that was the last time it was performed live in this country) since the recorded version is so iconic. This rendition was performed impressively by Romero, emulating his namesake to great effect and was another number which had the audience in raptures by its conclusion.
Although the revelation was Romero, the major surprise for me came during the band introductions. Romero namechecked everybody (including the backing vocalists, one of whom was Candice Night) but for his own shout out, it was Blackmore himself who took the microphone to introduce his singer to the audience. I have *never* seen him so much as go near a mic on all the occasions I’ve seen him play before, and that to me showed how highly he rates the guy he introduced to us on these dates.
Conclusions then: it was marvellous to see the Man in Black back with the Strat playing the music that made him famous, but he showed only flashes of the old magic at this gig. Even allowing for the fact he’s now in his seventies, I think a more energetic rhythm section would have given the show a bit more oomph, this was good but played a little too safe for me. If he does decide to do more, I would hope he doesn’t leave it so long again. Neither he nor we are able to wait around for another twenty years until next time!